Angela Merrit refreshing her spirits at Como Park Conservatory
Photo by Kelly MacWilliams
ANGELA MERRITT is a Saint Paul girl, dark-haired, gentle, soft-spoken, but very clear about things. She doesn't search for words or beat around the bush. She's the daughter of Fred and Rosemary and grew up near Como Park, riding her bike around the lake and visiting the Conservatory where, especially in winter, she got a strong sense that "everything would be okay."
"I went to Saint Paul Central High School, which offered a child-care services class with an in-house day care with 20 to 25 kids at any particular time, and that piqued my interest in working with children. I thought it was wild that my school offered child care. Now, looking back, I can see that I was always interested. So I set out to become a pre-school teacher.
"I went to a tech college in Eau Claire to get a teaching certificate and I taught in preschools for a few years. I love teaching. I have a caregiver sense about me but more than that I have a fascination with children and how they learn language, and math problems, and why some kids are so much faster than others. Kids from rough backgrounds, how they compare with their peers. You see everything when you work in pre-school. But I knew I wanted more. Pre-school teaching is fascinating, but it's thankless work, high stress, and the pay is no good. Nobody does it forever.
"So I went to the University of Wisconsin - Rice Lake, a small town, so friendly and it was great to be in that atmosphere.
"And then I decided to come home to the U of M. I had always imagined that I would go here. It felt like home, the Gophers and all that. I had an apartment in Saint Paul with a roommate, and rode the bus from Como Park to the U. I went in the child psychology program, which was very lucky for me, a small program and I was an honors student so the classes were smaller and there was more contact with professors. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the work I have to do, but the other day I was organizing computer files and read over some of my old papers, and it reminded me of why I was so excited about college. To write about new things and get comments back and to take literature classes as a break from reading science--classes like The Nature of Good and Evil, and Sexuality and Culture.
"I'm a morning person. I make lists and take notes, I form study groups--'Hey ladies, there's a test next week, let's get together and study'--we meet in the library or someone's house. I study at a café or at home or in the library; I move around. I always eat breakfast. Three meals a day. I don't believe in staying up all night. I get eight hours of sleep, seven or nine just doesn't work out for me.
"I had been at the U for two years and a student came into class talking about this exchange program in Berlin. I'd always wanted to study abroad but I come from a family with not much money and I was 26, older than most other students, and I thought I should graduate and get it over with and go to work or start grad school.
"But I applied, and I got an interview, a cold day in January, 11 people sitting behind a table in the Social Science Tower. I was very nervous, big-time stress. I knew they were going to ask me a question in German. I had taken two years of German at the U--my grandmother was German, second-generation, Delores Love, she lived in Saint Paul, near Saint Bernard's Church--but I was afraid of the German Question. Which was: "What do you do in your free time?" I stuttered. I said, "Could you please repeat the question?" I said something about cooking and going rock climbing and doing yoga. At the end, I walked out of the room thinking, 'At least you tried and they're having a good laugh.'
"Three hours later, they called up and said, 'We're supposed to notify you by mail but we wanted to tell you that you got the scholarship.' It was a year at the Freie Universität (Free University) of Berlin. I thought, 'This is really scary. I might not even do it. I don't have to go.' But in the end, I went.
"I flew to Newark, then to Berlin and was met by a friend from German class at the U. Found an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, which somebody told me was a cool place to be, in the old East Berlin, in old apartment buildings where, after the Wall came down, squatters lived who had then become more legal and most of them were still around, artists, musicians, classic lefties, bohemians, some young families with kids. Artists, musicians. The Free University is 45 minutes away by U-Bahn, the subway, which I rode three times a week to class.
"I decided to jump right in and look for an internship at a research institute and I sent emails to the Max Planck Institute which responded with discouraging comments, and I kept at it, and got an interview, and got the internship. They were doing cognitive research and I thought I'd just help out, but they sat me down and made me a junior researcher. I felt like a fish out of water and knew I had gotten myself into a bigger thing than I'd counted on. It was like learning to ride a bike. I did a project with adults, comparing older with college-age in working memory and categorization tasks, studying the possible adaptive effects of aging.
"Being in a foreign country and learning the language was something I thought I'd never be able to do. But I gave a presentation in German about cognitive modeling and answered questions. And I met a man and fell in love. Speaking with his German family was a high point of my fluency, so that I felt they really 'got' me. Though in German I was shyer, less sure, and a lot more polite. I couldn't make sarcastic remarks in German. He and I are still together.
"I'll go over to Berlin this summer and he'll come visit here. I'll do an internship at an elementary school this summer, and begin a master's in educational psychology in Berlin in the fall."
Next student story: THUY NGUYEN TRAN: Physiology, DNA research